To begin with an admission that will seem astounding to regular readers of this site: I was more stirred by the opening scene of M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, set in the Wankhede Stadium during the 2011 World Cup final, than I had been by the actual match five years earlier.
The main reason for this is that my love affair with cricket ended a decade ago, occasioned partly by the ugly, fair-weather displays of nationalism-jingoism associated with the sport (one example being a crowd attacking MS Dhoni's Ranchi house in 2007). As one of the very few people in the country who didn't much care when the real Dhoni hit that winning six on April 2, 2011, I was unprepared for my reaction - the adrenaline rush, the growing anticipation - when I watched Sushant Singh Rajput as Dhoni in the dressing room deciding to go in at No. 5, padding up and heading out into the deafening arena. Call it the power of a tense, tightly constructed scene that uses camerawork, space and sound effectively, or a sudden burst of nostalgia for a once-loved sport.
In other words, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story begins on a rabble-rousing note. But after this World Cup scene (which Neeraj Pandey's film will, of course, return to at the end), the narrative backtracks to a quiet afternoon in July 1981 and Dhoni's birth in a Ranchi hospital ward, while his father Paan Singh Dhoni (Anupam Kher), a hard-working lower-middle-class man, waits nervously outside. A series of well-constructed vignettes follows: Dhoni as a boy being coerced by a coach to give up football for cricket, and to take up wicketkeeping (though he prefers batting); the support of his friends as it becomes evident that he has special talent and drive; the misgivings of his father, who has sensibly conservative ideas about what constitutes a secure future; repeated frustrations followed by a job in the Railways and the possibility of becoming a "bada aadmi" ("Ticket collector se badi cheez kya ho sakti hai?" as Paan Singh puts it" [What can be bigger than a ticket collector?]).
Rajput' portrayal of Dhoni starts from when he is 16, and these early scenes have a slightly off-kilter quality - as if the actor's head has been digitally superimposed on a slim teen body - but that doesn't matter after a while, because this is a fine performance. Rajput captures not just Dhoni's boyish exuberance and the enigmatic smile that stops just short of being cocky, but also something of the placid, Buddha-like inscrutability that emerges in moments of stress; a sense that he is calling on inner reserves only he knows about. This is a convincing portrait of a young man who can be impetuous but is also grounded enough to buy snacks for his friends as a sort of "celebration" after not being selected for a team - because he never wants to forget this day of failure.
Rajput captures not just Dhoni's boyish exuberance and the enigmatic smile that stops just short of being cocky, but also something of the placid, Buddha-like inscrutability that emerges in moments of stress; a sense that he is calling on inner reserves only he knows about
The film's first half, with its depiction of the rhythms of small-town life, is a reminder that director Pandey has a feel for place and period (see his recreation of 1980s Delhi in the con-job film Special 26). There are many engaging little moments, such as an early encounter, in a Bihar-Punjab match, between Dhoni and future team-mate Yuvraj Singh (played here by Herri Tangri as a regal kid whose very presence leaves most people awestruck). The cricket scenes are shot with panache and wit, even when they centre on a deadpan hero. The stage also gradually shifts to show us officials in the sport's higher echelons in Mumbai and Delhi pulling strings and deciding the fate of thousands of struggling youngsters around the country.
In the second half, a tonal unevenness sets in, and to a degree this is understandable given the arc of Dhoni's life. It seemed natural that the early scenes would have the texture of a gritty, understated small-town story about aspiration, the sort that Hindi cinema often does so well now (in another such film, Kai Po Che! (2013), Rajput played a character whose cricketing dreams don't pan out). But once Dhoni gets his chance in the Indian team, he rises to stardom fairly quickly, and as more glamorous locations take over - plush hotel rooms, advertising studios where he says cheesy lines while endorsing a range of products - the film's look and pace alter as well; it becomes glossier, more languid.
That in itself is not a problem, but around this time, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story also becomes looser, more random, and whimsical in its decisions about what to show and what to leave out (there isn't even a scene that shows the circumstances that led to Dhoni becoming captain) - and when this happens, one recalls that this is largely an "authorised" project, with the real-life Dhoni and his associates having been consulted and kept abreast of the script.
There are two romantic interludes - the first involving a girl named Priyanka (Disha Patani), who dies in a car crash, then with the cricket-indifferent Sakshi (Kiara Advani), who goes on to become Dhoni's wife - that feel much too generic given how the film has unfolded up to then. This section includes an exotic-location song sequence, superfluous flashback inserts, and embarrassingly forced attempts to generate pathos (wondering about their future together, Priyanka dolefully repeats the line "Bahut time hai naa hamaaray paas?" [We have plenty of time, don't we?] as if she were aware of her own impending fate). Briefly glimpsed in these scenes is the suggestion that a man who is assertive as batsman and captain might be defensive-passive when it comes to relationships, but the film doesn't take this idea anywhere. The two-woman trope is handled better here than in the recent, utterly lacklustre Mohammad Azharuddin biopic Azhar, but that isn't saying much. (The goofy climactic scene of that film had the "wronged" Azhar being vindicated when his two wives walk into the courtroom side by side to support him and provide the ultimate character certificate!)
These sequences notwithstanding, the film builds unerringly towards that World Cup win, which is presented here as the culmination of a remarkable career (never mind that real-life sport doesn't usually provide such tidy or definitive endings - Dhoni did, after all, also captain India in their 2015 loss, but there isn't space here for such troughs). Ending with real footage of the post-match celebrations is a guaranteed way of having the audience out of their seats and applauding; as mentioned above, I was one of those viewers.
In the final analysis, the film worked best when it did the small moment well. In one notable scene, a subdued Dhoni explains why he is so frustrated by his Railways job - not because he considers it below him ("Kaam chhota nahin lagta" [I don't think the work is small], he says) but because it doesn't allow him to give cricket enough time and attention. This nuanced scene comes as a refreshing counterpoint to a shoe-polish ad that the real Dhoni did a long time ago, where he turned to the camera and said, "I decided not to be ordinary. I chose to shine." A good, smooth line for the product, but also one that seemed to condescendingly imply that people in some professions can be dismissed as "ordinary" and that real winners can simply choose to reach the top through hard work and perseverance.
M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story is a bumpy film, very stimulating in its good parts, oddly inert at other times, but in its better moments - like that "Kaam chhota nahin lagta" scene - it ducks the grand, overarching narratives and gives us a ground-level story about a young man following a calling with the knowledge that things might not work out perfectly, but that he has to at least give it a shot, he can't die wondering. That's a compelling tale in itself, and a more inspirational one in some ways than the one hinted at in the film's more triumphal scenes - the ones about a blazing star who was so good and so determined that he was destined to reach the top no matter what, and who might well have had that World Cup-winning six inscribed on his horoscope.
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Jai Arjun Singh is a writer and critic. His most recent book is The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee